She’s not as fiery as Loretta or as sassy as Dolly. Tammy was more dramatic and Jeannie more modern, but Pretty Miss Norma Jean’s classic recordings have a worldliness, a weariness that was virtually unmatched in the 1960s and ’70s. She was the small country girl turned big city woman. Edward Hopper painted her 100 times over; standing on a sidewalk, a lunch pail in hand, alone at a cafe table, alone on a bed where, until recently perhaps, she wasn’t, leaning on a porch rail with a boy at night, sitting with a man in an all night diner, next to him and still alone. These are the women Norma Jean knew and these were the women she sang about.
She was called “a girl singer.” An antiquated term men used to relegate women to second billing. She’s certainly, however, one of the reasons that term has long been retired.
She got her start on Oklahoma radio around 1951 and soon was touring with country swing bands like Merl Lindsay and his Oklahoma Nite Riders. By 21 she was a divorced single Mother, trained on the road to sing and well versed in life. It was time, she decided, to move to Nashville. It was there that she was discovered by Porter Wagoner. It was Wagoner who first helped her explore her hard scrabble roots through song. A theme that fit her dusty drawl especially well. She became an integral part of his live show and television show and eventually the relationship, for the worse, turned romantic. That didn’t last as those things rarely do and she was sent packing. A simplistic telling of the tale no doubt, but as true as any other. In 1967 a young woman named Dolly stepped up to take her place and the whole thing played out once again. Wagoner knew the deep truth that you can’t run away from yourself and he lived it out everyday.
Talk Back Trembling Lips, Norma Jean live on The Porter Wagoner Show, January 10, 1964
Norma Jean kept on recording into the early 1970s when she moved back to Oklahoma with an old childhood sweetheart and that worked out for a little while.
The songs though from that period are wonderful and highly underrated. She didn’t write her own material, but once she honed in on what she liked the right material found her. The songs by writers like Harlan Howard, Liz Anderson, Hank Cochran, Cy Coben and Bill Anderson practically document the story of an old fashioned girl living in a modern world. In something of a pre-cursor to Paradise By the Dashboard Lights Norma sings knowingly about deals struck and promises made between young men and women while in each other’s arms in the Dusty Rose classic Let’s Go All the Way. Deals are meant to be broken though and soon are in Norma Jean’s world. What follows are some of the classic break ’em and leave songs ever recorded, Go Cat Go about a husband who’d rather be out swinging, You’re Driving Me Out of My Mind about being stuck home in the suburbs in a one car family and The Game of Triangles, one of the oddest country songs I’ve heard really, a triplet I suppose with Bobby Bare and Liz Anderson each taking the role of the husband and the wife and Norma Jean, this time singing the part of the misunderstood mistress. That went went all the way to No. 5 in 1966. Songs like Don’t Let the Doorknob Hit You were the follow-ups, but ultimately it’s the heartbreak of a woman crying on the way to the bank to cash her alimony check and the man’s shirt, almost still warm, that hangs in her closet that continues to ring so true.
Let’s Go All the Way, Norma Jean
This is heady stuff, but Norma Jean with a twang as dry as her wit still makes me laugh. The fiddles and steel guitars jump and the whole thing is a two-step if you’d rather. Admittedly, sometimes I would.
Heaven Help the Poor Working Girl, Norma Jean
Norma Jean also sang about women who work. In songs like 1967’s Heaven Help the Working Girl she must have put down one of the original waitress songs and a few years after that an entire concept album about hard times in I Guess That Comes From Being Poor. That one resonates especially strong today. I suppose it always has. Why so many songs about being poor? There’s an awful lot of us that are. Norma Jean knew it was the one natural resource we’ll never run out of and the one thing no politician alive will ever do anything about. I guess if only she had worked a little harder…
The Lord Must Have Loved the Poor Folks, Norma Jean